Climbing the Garw Valley is similar to most other valleys in South Wales. Characteristic rows of terraced houses line the road, streets jut out from the side of the mountains, and everything is set in a bowl of green fields and trees. However, as the journey approaches Blaengarw, the hills become more and more imposing, until you feel like you are surrounded.
Despite the wind blowing in the valley, the general feeling of the village is one of peace. Sitting right at the head of the Garw, there is no way out but to turn back. For this reason, there is very little traffic on the roads, with only those who live in Blaengarw, or those who go out to walk their dogs on one of the hundreds of trails available in the area. Knowing that you are entering such a tight-knit community as an outsider can be daunting, however, there are few welcomes as warm and open as those found in Blaengarw.
Forty years ago the appearance would be a stark contrast to today. The Garw Valley was synonymous with mining, with most families having at least one employed member and many heading to Balengarw for employment. As such, the village has struggled to keep up with the pit closings and many have had to travel back down to the town of Bridgend to find work. In the face of this, however, many who grew up in the city do not reflect on the negativity of that time when reminiscing about their past.
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Gareth Poulton, 65, has lived in Blaengarw all his life and now resides on Pwllcarn Terrace, the last row of houses at the very top of the valley. He fondly remembers growing up in the area: “We played football in the streets at that time, we went to the local school before going to Ynysawdre, we took many walks to take the dogs.
“My grandfather used to work in the pit. It closed shortly after the strike. I was almost an adult when the strike broke, my partner was a miner, so I was helping him collect houses for miners, there was a real Vallées spirit.”
Despite the loss of jobs when the mines close, Blaengarw is not as destitute as many other areas of the former coalfield. And it ranks highly for community safety and access to services in studies like the Welsh Multiple Deprivation Index.
Following the closure of the mines, many had to travel out of Blaengarw, back to Bridgend to find work. As such, it was becoming increasingly apparent who was and was not from the area. Even recently, Gareth recalled seeing lots of people walking through the Valley during lockdown and being able to identify those who were new visitors, looking for somewhere different to take their dogs.
While disappointed that attendance could not be shifted into tourism for local businesses due to the closures, he appreciated seeing new faces and noted that it had become increasingly common in recent years. “It’s nice and quiet here from my point of view. You’re always peaceful, so peaceful, you don’t have a lot of problems either. It’s a very quiet valley, especially around here, you don’t get lots of traffic, dead end at the top of the road here.”
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The tranquility of Blanegarw, at most ‘troubled’ by running water on the site of the closed colliery, has only one midday signifier on weekdays, and that is the laughter and cries of children from the nearby primary school. . With just the bare essentials to get them through, the school, plus a local shop, post office, hotel and pub, and workman’s hall make up what could be considered the ‘centre of the village’ . It is, however, more than enough to attract new people to settle in the area, with the average property price standing at £97,314, according to Rightmove.
This spike in new faces was not missed by other residents either. Maxine Lewis was born and raised in Blaengarw. “Growing up here was awesome, it was lovely,” she explained. Speaking of the William Trigg Community Centre, she described how, living in such a high place in the valley, everyone knew each other. Although she decided to move to England as an adult, Maxine returned to the Valley eight years ago. “I wanted my son to grow up and have the same kind of upbringing as me.”
However, Maxine had noticed a significant change in the community. “It wasn’t the same. It was so different because people left and new people moved in, and in a way we lost a bit of our sense of community.” It’s a surprise to hear that considering Maxine talks eight years later about a bustling community center full of people visiting the pantry, coming to the cafe and constantly coming in and out for various classes being introduced .
“I think we need a community spirit again because times are getting so tough, everyone has to help everyone else and it goes back to when people used to do that. Now more than ever, that’s is necessary”, adds Maxine. Elements of this flow back to the village, with Maxine running a successful youth club within the community center – although things had to come to a halt during the pandemic.
“Seventy-five children screaming on a Friday, imagine the noise. You had a big smile on your face because you knew seventy-five children were safe, warm and having fun. We have had to close because of Covid, and I was seeing kids on the street and they were like, ‘Madam, Miss, when can we start again?'”
The community center is also successful in reaching out to older members of the community, thanks to the hard work of Rod and Mandy Shaw, who now run many of the centre’s day-to-day activities as well as a community cafe. Rod, chattering happily in his West County accent, stands out among the crowd, but couldn’t fit more into the community if he tried.
“My wife was born in Wales, I can’t say that. Wales is, I guess, my adopted country. At the time we moved here I was working in Bristol. That was the commute the longest I could do, 120 miles, 60 miles each way.” Rod explained. “We’ve really been through several valleys and communities from Monmouth but when we got here we came back three times because there’s something really appealing about the Garw Valley and part of that is the people are really open and welcoming.”
Rod noted that being a big outdoorsman with five English pointers, there was a huge draw for his family to settle in the valley. “It’s incredibly beautiful. I think it surprises most people – because it’s a headless valley where you can’t go anywhere else – so you have to have a reason to come here, and when people come , they are really very surprised.”
Rod first became involved with the community center “a few years ago” through his charity Calon y cwm (of which Maxine also sits on the board). He and his wife were asked to get involved and have since helped develop the building into a hub for locals. Local artists sell their work, residents can get pantry essentials, Thai Chi lessons are available via a remote instructor who’s projected onto the wall from Caerau, and affordable breakfasts and meals are served. daily by Rod’s wife, Mandy, allowing older residents to get out and meet others after a period of self-isolation.
In any remote area, public transport will always be a problem, and Blaengarw knows that more than anyone. Earlier last year, we reported on the continuing problem of last minute bus cancellations and how they affected residents, and they are still reporting issues today. Andrew Whittingham moved to Blaengarw thirteen years ago but is no stranger to the valley having grown up in Pontycymer. Although he doesn’t use the bus himself, his children do and note how unreliable the service can be: “It’s pretty unreliable, if they don’t have a bus driver, they just cancel it,” he says.
Cancellations can be posted on social media, however, this is not always accessible, especially among older generations. “Normally I’m Dad’s cab,” laughs Andrew. Gareth Poulton also noted the transport problem, noting that buses to Bridgend used to run until 10.30pm from the top of the valley, but have now been reduced and end at 8.30pm, meaning an expensive taxi for those going out later. .
Despite this, the general impression of life in Blaengarw is one of peace and contentment. Of course, being this high means you might see snow more often than the rest of the valley, and bread and milk might disappear from the shelves a little faster than elsewhere, but when your house is surrounded by a community so welcoming and beautiful nature, it’s hard to see what not to love. Do you like this story? Get all of our latest stories like this from Bridgend County straight to your inbox by signing up to our free newsletters here.